11 Comments

Hugo worthy writer denied?

With all the talk about Hugo worthy books and authors I was reminded of Barry Hughart. He blamed the end of his writing career on publishers being idiots and not knowing how to sell his books. I know many people who bring him up as the perfect example of what is wrong with the Hugo process and traditional publishing. I thought I’d look into him and see what I thought.

hughart cover

His first and most well known work was Bridge Of Birds in 1984, he followed with two more by the end of the decade and then he was done. I’ve heard several versions of what happened exactly, some saying he was a victim of bad decisions, some saying he was a victim of his own mouth. I have no idea, I’m not sure anyone really does a quarter century later. After all, the principles have had plenty of time to become firmly convinced of the rightness of their positions.

This being so I decided to reread the books and see for myself how good or bad they were. My wife picked up the kindle bundle  The Chronicles Of Master Li And Number Ten OX and away I went. I remember reading Bridge Of Birds when it was new, I wasn’t sure about the others. In fact I’m still not sure.

When I read a book I don’t always remember all of it, but I usually can recognize it as I start rereading it. All I remembered about Bridge of Birds was Number Ten Ox playing Archie/Watson to his master’s Wolfe/Holmes. As I read the book I found that that, and an ancient Chinese setting were all I remembered. I found that more than mildly disturbing. I’m still not sure why more of it didn’t stick.

At any rate, I read the trilogy. I found it fairly well written for the constraints the author was working under. The constraints may be part of why I didn’t remember much. He was trying to do something different. I’m not positive whether he was writing another paean to the mystical east or a send up of same. I even wonder how much was “magic” and how much was description of events using flowery allusion and magic to describe mundane events. Some of the events had to be magical, especially in the latter two books. Other things were referred to as magical when they were science.

There are endless passages describing the exotic locales, people and customs. I personally find that much fluff and filler nauseating, but that is a matter of taste. There is also the matter of mood, and to set something in Ancient China it might be necessary to spend that much time on gods and local celebrations, customs, and color to sell the story. I don’t know.

Another thing I have no idea about is the authenticity of his legends, gods, and court protocol. Research would have been much harder back then, but he could very well be an expert on 6th century China. Equally well he could have made the setting up from popular stories about the wonderful east. I’m not sure and I’m not about to spend the hours of research to find out.

All in all I find myself forgetting the stories as I type this. While that means that I can enjoy reading the books again in a couple of years it also means that the stories are eminently forgettable. In my honest opinion he is not that great a writer. I think many of his fans are like James Dean fans, more about what he might have produced than what he actually did.

Still it comes down to taste. I dislike the adulation many westerners give to anything to do with the mystical east, therefore my enjoyment cannot be the same as one of those who do have the bug. Go read it and tell me what you think about his ability as a writer. You may like him better than I do. You may like him less. This is a good thing, differences in taste make for a lot more variety than agreement does. If everyone liked the same books I do only a handful of very wealthy writers would exist, the other would give up and stay with their day jobs.

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11 comments on “Hugo worthy writer denied?

  1. I have a friend who keeps pushing me to read them, thinking that my sinophilia combined with my love of the Nero Wolfe books means I’ll automatically love them. I’ve resisted thus far because they look, from the outside, all together too precious and self-satisfied, and your review does little to alter that impression. But there are people who think very highly of them.

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  2. I do believe I know the friend to whom you refer. They aren’t bad books, they simply aren’t great books IMHO

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  3. “Precious” is kind of a good description of them. In parts, they can be poetically lovely. In parts, they can be as contrived as your average Indiana Jones movie. (The part in the first book where they escape being stranded in the middle of nowhere by building a gunpowder-powered helicopter out of bamboo comes to mind.) How much you’ll enjoy them depends on your tolerance for that kind of thing.

    I still think it’s a pity there aren’t more of them, as I do have a high tolerance for “precious”. Someone should prod Hughart into self-publishing. I’m sure he’d find an audience.

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  4. Jason, Sanford is blinkered. These ARE great books, with a fantastic atmosphere, memorable characters and the greatest craft in establishing crowd scenes and background. Sanford isn’t a great lover of historical of any kind. 😉

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  5. I heard a lot of good things about these books, but they’ve never piqued my interest all that much. Perhaps it’s the setting in ancient China, perhaps it’s the style of writing I’ve seen in the snippets I’ve read. I’ve got a lot of other books to read before I would get to these. Different strokes I guess.

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  6. Well, this is certainly discouraging. We are writing a book set in 12th century Japan, and when I read Number Ten Ox, I was amazed at the author’s ability to evoke the feeling and the landscape of ancient China, its myths and legends. One of the things we have tried very hard to do is to maintain the esthetics of the culture of 12th century Japan, but it sounds from the comments here that we are going to be doomed to disappointment, as readers dismiss it as “flowery” and “fluff and filler.”

    I guess the market will decide, but I am much more pessimistic about our chances than I was previously.

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    • Remember that many people, such as Sarah, adore those books. One of the important things to remember about reviewers is that their taste may not be general. I used to watch Siskel and Ebert knowing that if Siskel hated it, I would probably enjoy it

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